Cultures in Which Following Rules Is Important Have Fared Better Amid the Pandemic: Study


Feb 2, 2021


Image Credit: Getty Images

As we near the one-year anniversary of when Covid19 started spurring lockdowns around the world, a new paper looks back on how countries fared in the first few months of the pandemic. It explains the coronavirus case and death rate discrepancies between the U.S. and Japan, or Mexico and South Korea, through cultural norms in these countries, and how the affinity of their populations to break or follow rules predicted how badly they experienced the pandemic. 

The paper, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, looked at 57 countries’ approach toward Covid19-lockdown rules and found “loose countries” that embrace relaxed attitudes toward rule-breakers experienced eight times more death, and five times more cases, than countries who were “tight,” where people collectively followed rules strictly and imposed consequences for rule-breakers. 

Related on The Swaddle:

Blame Institutions, Not ‘Covidiots,’ For Covid19 Surge

“Tighter cultures such as China, Singapore, and South Korea have stricter rules and punishments for deviance, whereas looser cultures such as Brazil, Spain, and the USA have weaker norms and are much more permissive,” the paper states.

Researchers only evaluated pandemic responses until October 2020. Up to that point, they ranked India at intense cultural tightness. This perhaps is one theory for why India had far lower rates of coronavirus cases and deaths compared to the West. For The Guardian, lead researcher Michele Gelfand writes, “these differences aren’t random. Research in both nation-states and small-scale societies has shown that communities with histories of chronic threat – whether natural disasters, infectious diseases, famines or invasions – develop stricter rules that ensure order and cohesion.” She adds, “It makes good evolutionary sense: following rules helps us survive chaos and crisis.”

But if a country hasn’t had as many severe public health emergencies and disasters such as the Covid19 pandemic, populations of those countries tend to downplay the threat, often not being able to identify or adequately respond to the “threat signal,” Gelfand writes. 

As we try to move forward from the Covid19 pandemic, it’s important we look back and analyze our response, in order to avoide a backslide in this crisis and to better prepare for the next pandemic for which experts are already sounding warning signals. Since October 2020, for example, even culturally tight nations have loosened rules — apparent in how the number of people taking the pandemic seriously has seriously deteriorated in India. In order to combat this behavioral and compassion fatigue, we need both loose and tight nations to execute a kind of “cultural ambidexterity,” Gelfand writes. Too loose, and governments run the risk of downplaying a threat and encouraging complacence; too tight and governments risk scaring people to the extent they feel helpless, defensive, and therefore nonchalant. In such situations, countries need to “adjust how tight and loose they are based on how dangerous conditions are,” Gelfand writes, while also making it abundantly clear how long things will remain “tight,” that it will be a temporary phenomenon. 

The paper further states, “Collective threats require a tremendous amount of coordination to survive, and that abidance of social norms is one key coordination mechanism that enables groups to do so.”


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.